CHARACTERS: A Rebel of the Decidedly Non-Confederate Sort

“Characters” is a series profiling West Virginia characters, living and dead, worth knowing more about. We define ‘character’ as being one and having some.

Barbara Ann Musgrave, 1924-2015: “She hated several things, one of which she called ‘narrowmindedness …'”

By RICK WILSON | July 16.2020 |

The recent decision to change the name of Charleston’s Stonewall Jackson Middle School made me think of my late mother. An alumna of the school, she died in 2015 at 90. She was a rebel of the decidedly non-Confederate variety. And she would have been ecstatic over the change.

A daughter of the southern West Virginia coalfields, she was born in Beckley and spent her early years in Wyoming County. Her father worked in the mines when work was to be found, which wasn’t often in the 1920s and ’30s.

Eventually, he caught a break and found a job at the Union Carbide plant. (Ironically, he’d wind up getting killed on the job before I was born. So it goes.)

He moved the family to Charleston. My mother attended St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, now St. Christopher’s. She graduated from Stonewall and was elected as homecoming queen or something to that effect.

While it lasted, the Carbide job made it possible for her to be the first of her family to attend college. She went to Ohio University in Athens, a place I still like.

Her rebellions were multiple.

That was a good thing. She’d wind up raising two sons and losing two more on a West Virginia teacher’s salary with no child support. My father, a World War II combat veteran in the Pacific Theater, had many charms and virtues, but domesticity didn’t make the cut. Today, he might have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

My mother taught junior high math for about 25 years in Milton, where she was something of an institution.

In “The Prince,” the Renaissance philosopher Machiavelli wrote that it was better for a leader to be feared than loved. In her teaching career, my mother somehow managed to hit the sweet spot. She was generally loved by two or so generations of students, but her temper was legendary.

Although she barely stood 5 feet, 2 inches after a stretch, there was a persistent legend across the years of her picking up a heavy school desk and throwing it across the room. In some versions, there was a student in the desk.

I wouldn’t swear to that. But it wouldn’t surprise me.

Her rebellions were multiple. She was hardcore on women’s rights. I still remember the time as a teenager when I was pontificating about abortion. She calmly said that if it were a safe and legal option, she would have gotten one in her last pregnancy, which didn’t end well. That pretty much shut me up on that subject.

She didn’t bat an eye when my late older brother came out as gay. She loved hanging out with his friends, a fun crew. At the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, both were mad about Broadway musicals, a gene which I apparently didn’t inherit.

She was a hardcore union member, as well. In those days, the West Virginia Education Association was the only game in town, but I’m sure she would have been just as happy in the West Virginia Federation of Teachers. In the ’70s, she marched with hundreds of other teachers in Charleston for better pay.

She hated the bogus narrative of racist chivalry and the “Lost Cause.”

One of my favorite memories of her was during the 1990 teacher strike. She had recently retired and was livid that Cabell County teachers didn’t join the walkout. (Some people started calling it ‘Scabell.’)

At the time, I was a year into my job with the American Friends Service Committee and had spent a lot of that trying to support United Mine Workers of America and their families during the Pittston strike.

As the smoke poured from her ears, she said, “Why don’t you get some of your union miner friends to come up and picket and shut down Cabell schools?”

I thought that was the best idea ever and got right on it. Alas, the teachers settled the strike and won a historic victory before we could pull that off.

Ahh, the ones that got away …

“… If you really wanted her to go off, you just had to mention the Confederacy.”

She hated several things, one of which she called “narrowmindedness,” a catchall term for her that included racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, science-denying, disapproval of card playing, abstinence from wine and other offenses against humanity.

But if you really wanted her to go off, you just had to mention the Confederacy. She hated it with the vehemence of a Union soldier wounded in a bad place at the Battle of Fredericksburg. She hated the bogus narrative of racist chivalry and the “Lost Cause.” She hated the idea of any aristocracy. She hated efforts to romanticize it. She pretty much hated everything about it.

Congratulations to those who fought the good fight for a long-needed change.

And if there is anything beyond this life, and if the dead are still interested in earthly things, somewhere someone I know is doing cartwheels.

RICK WILSON is a native West Virginian who works for the American Friends Service Committee, a social justice organization related to the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).  He’s a contributing columnist for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has taught sociology for Marshall and WVU-Tech. This article is adapted from his as yet unpublished memoir. See his blog, “Goat Rope.”


DON WEST | Part 2: “May It Be So”: Long before it became fashionable, Don West fought the passive hillbilly stereotype by pointing to mountain labor’s traditions of struggle and solidarity.


CHARACTERS | The One-Armed Bandit of No. 1 Holler, West Virginia: The life story of the “The One-Armed Bandit” is the stuff of heroes and legends. You may not know Gary Mays’ tale, though, as the major league career the West Virginia native might have had may have been blocked by racism. But nothing ever kept Gary Mays down for long.

TRAILER: A Peek at “Bye-Bye, Stonewall” mini-doc: Here’s a peek from the trailer to WestVirginiaVille’s upcoming mini-documentary, “Bye-Bye, Stonewall,” on the years-long backstory on how a school in a black neighborhood in West Virginia’s capital city finally got free of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson’s name and mug.

VIDEO: When the Confederate Flag Cuts and Runs: We direct your amusement to this Tiffany Thouartdope Finkton insta-rap. She made it after capturing a special moment outside the Kaoard of Education meeting to consider renaming Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Charleston WV. The fellow who arrived with a Confederate flag was definitely not reading the room.

VIEW FROM THE PLAYGROUND: On Changing Stonewall Jackson Middle School’s NameAs adults decide the future of Stonewall Jackson Middle School’s name at meeting Monday, July 6, 2020, we visited a playground in Charleston WV to find out what a group of students thought about the idea.

POINTS of VIEW | ‘If You’re Silent About Your Pain’: A LETTER TO NEUTRAL COLLEAGUES: “I realize you may be actually confused about whether blacks are offended or feel pain from reminders of that dark period. Zora Neale Neale Hurston once said: “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So, I will clarify that we are offended. We are in pain.”

‘ALEXANDRIA SPEAKS’: Why Stonewall Jackson Middle School Needs a New Name: Why rename a school long named for a Confederate general? Watch a 13-year-old student in Charleston WV tell why in an impassioned plea to the adults considering whether to rename her Stonewall Jackson Middle School.

FREE SUBSCRIBE to WestVirginiaVille’s e-mail newsletter:

One Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: